Taking your children to the park to feed the ducks is a normal and pleasurable activity for most parents. But for Kelly Phillips, a mother of two, it posed a terrifying challenge. Kelly, 31, has had a crippling fear of birds since childhood. Even seeing a pigeon perched on the roof or flying high above her would throw her into a blind panic. The disorder, called ornithophobia, had blighted her life. She relied on her parents and husband for help if ever she encountered a bird, and struggled to run errands or travel alone. Even a leisurely walk around her home town of Cambridge would be fraught with anxiety.
Kelly is one of 60 people suffering from severe phobias who feature in a new British television series, Fright Club. Along with fellow psychologist and therapist Dr Becky Spelman, I had only three days to help them confront their fears with some extreme treatments that would make most of us quake. Among them was deep-sea fishing to treat a fear of water, lying in coffins to treat a fear of confined spaces and, for Kelly, handling a live turkey. As with so many of the others I met, she showed phenomenal courage.
Phobias are distressing disorders that can restrict life to an unimaginable degree: one agoraphobic woman I treated several years ago had not left the house for 23 years, for fear something terrible might happen. In her 50s she was still getting relatives to do her shopping, or ordering goods online. (It's a sad fact that well-meaning family and friends can collude with the sufferer and make matters worse, while the internet has not helped those with a fear of public spaces.)
But what lies behind such fears? People with phobias have a pure, irrational terror of an object or situation and often "catastrophise", or fixate on the worst case scenario. So people afraid of spiders (arachnophobes) may fear they will be lethally poisoned by a bite, while those with claustrophobia imagine that if they get in a lift it will break and they will be left to die. This fear then provokes physical symptoms such as shallow, rapid breathing, sweating, palpitations and a feeling of being disconnected from one's environment. It doesn't take much to bring these on: Kelly had a full-blown panic attack the evening she joined the programme, before filming had even started.
Such reactions are part of the "fight or flight" response, which can be useful for life and death situations, such as if there is a lion nearby. In the case of phobias, however, the evolutionary response has become inappropriate. But it's no use telling people to think more rationally: they already know they are being irrational.
It wasn't clear what had triggered Kelly's ornithophobia. It might well have been a reaction to a bird flying at her as a child, as traumatic incidents in childhood can spark such fears. Overly anxious parents giving off signals that certain objects or situations are dangerous can also be responsible. In other cases, the sufferer projects their general anxiety on to a specific phobia, meaning they may overcome one fear, only for it to be replaced by another. There is also some evidence genetic factors play a part.
Tackling such conditions is a gradual process, but our challenge was to do so in just three days. In the first film, Kelly and others with ornithophobia are exposed to their fear object - birds - in small, incremental steps; this is called the exposure ladder and is an effective treatment for many phobias.
So first our subjects went to a park to feed the birds. Even coming into contact with bird food left quite a few in tears and threatening to walk off, but one or two in the group managed to help the others through it. The next step was visiting an aviary, where each had to handle a dove. (The birds were used for weddings, so were quite tame.) They then had to catch and weigh turkeys on a farm - no mean feat, for seeing hundreds of these ugly birds advance towards you in a field would be tough for anyone.
At the same time, the sufferers were taught to deal with their anxiety symptoms by focusing on breathing and relaxation, and also through "mindfulness" - a buzzword these days, but in fact a technique that has been used by therapists for many years. Mindfulness distracts people from their negative thoughts by focusing on something in the here and now; it could be the wallpaper, or even your own feet.
On the third and final day, the group had to handle birds of prey - falcons, hawks, owls and vultures. For this, they were given some training by experts. Even to look at the sharp claws and beaks of these birds can be terrifying, but it was an important exercise, as phobics tend to generalise, believing all birds - or all dogs or all spiders - are dangerous. Kelly chose a small South African owl that looked cute and was flightless. It hopped on to her head, from where she had to pull it on to her hand.
Did these extreme exposures help? Actually, yes. We revisited those who took part in the programme and all reported having overcome their fears. One man, Rick, who had a terrific fear of birds, is due to get married in a few months and has booked the owl he handled to carry the wedding ring.
Another programme in the series deals with fear of heights (acrophobia), featuring sufferers such as Peter, who couldn't even scale the first rung of a ladder to change a light bulb, never mind take a flight. He'd been afflicted by this phobia since suffering a panic attack on the Blackpool Tower aged six or seven. Now in his fifties, he has been on a major journey: after starting by looking at pictures of high buildings, he managed to climb a stepladder, ascend scaffolding, and finally make it to the top ledge of the UK's tallest sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit in London's Olympic Park. At the weekend, he and another ex-sufferer, Sarah, abseiled down the side of the Orbit for charity.
So yes, you can cure a phobia in three days, though you do need to follow up with regular exposure and reinforcement, rather than retreat. But in real life, of course, you wouldn't undergo such an intensive course or such extreme exposure. Phobias are usually treated by cognitive behavioural therapy, generally in between six and 12 one-hour sessions. In these, the sufferer is gradually exposed to the object or situation they fear, with steps along the way repeated if necessary. Exposure can be done with the therapist if practical, or otherwise with a friend, and the client then discusses their reaction in the next therapy session.
As for Kelly, she is a changed woman. Despite some minor panic attacks, she has learnt to handle her anxiety and has come through the experience with flying colours. Only the other day, she sent us a fabulous photograph of herself with her two children - a happy family shot of them feeding the ducks in the park.
• As told to Cherrill Hicks.
Five phobias and how to overcome them
These exercises can be done with support from a friend or relative and eventually, alone. Every time you think you have reached your limit, go beyond it: people with phobias often underestimate what they can achieve.
Fear of heights (acrophobia)
Begin by standing on the first rung of a ladder, gradually working your way up. Next, look out of the window from the second storey of a house. Then go to a tall building and look at it from the ground, before taking the lift and looking out of the top floor window.
Fear of spiders (arachnophobia)
Begin by looking at pictures of spiders, then films of moving spiders, then look at a spider inside a jar. Try holding a small spider in your hand, then try a variety of sizes.
Fear of flying
Many people try to overcome this with alcohol or tranquillisers, but that means they never get to grips with the fear. Programmes to combat it, which are offered by several airlines, may start with watching a film of flights, getting comfortable with being at an airport and trying a short UK-based flight.
Fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia)
Try going up one floor in a lift with a friend, then go it alone. Or try taking the Tube, one stop at a time.
Fear of being in public spaces (agoraphobia)
Look out of the window before stepping outside your front door. Next, go to the end of the street with a friend, before going to a local shop. Then go to the town centre.